Enhancement: the new “normal”?

Ordinary people like students, professionals, and video game players are increasingly using technology to boost their memory, wakefulness, attention, reflexes, and clarity of thought. Cognitive enhancers range from regulated medications like Ritalin, modafinil, and donepezil, to unregulated devices that stimulate the brain using current drawn from 9 volt batteries. This is not science fiction but reality.

Social attitudes towards cognitive enhancement range from fanatical enthusiasm to dismissive skepticism and frightened resistance. But these extreme reactions are bound to disappear once safety, effectiveness, and equity of access can be assured. At that point, like coffee, pain killers, and smart phones, cognitive enhancement will be poised to become the new normal.

Advances in science and technology subtly shape our lives by gradually and imperceptibly changing the moral, legal, and social landscape. What’s freely embraced today as a way of bettering ourselves, accomplishing more, or just making life easier, may eventually become expected and even required.

My talk urges that to secure the benefits and to avoid pitfalls, we must ensure that cognitive enhancement does not just become the new normal. This will require intelligent regulation of these exciting new technologies that navigates around the currently-prevalent extreme social attitudes.

 

See the video footage of my TEDxSydney talk, delivered at the Sydney Opera House on April 26th, 2014. Massive thanks go out to Paul Sheridan and Dr Emma A. Jane for helping in the production of this talk.

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